Bob Dylan and the Genius of Narrative

No matter what form of storytelling you jump into, narrative is the highway that the character or characters that populate song, books and movies journey down. It creates the trees that line the road, the people that weave in and out, the girl who breaks your heart and the lingering scent of her skin that you remember years after she left. The difference between songs and novels as opposed to the movies is they can address you directly and take you on their journey as they are living it. It is harder in a film to do that. Television shows like Modern Family and Parks and Recreation have done it successfully, but it is a delicate balancing act, and one not very easy to pull off. The characters cannot continually be addressing the audience in a film, otherwise you will end up with a nine hour movie.

In 1997 when Bob Dylan released Time Out of Mind, he returned from a jaunt through the bowels of mediocrity. Dylan returned to what he did best, storytelling. Daniel Lanois helped to provide a different frame with which Dylan could work. The result was a blueprint from which we all could learn. As Dylan’s career has progressed, he has, more or less, changed his point of view. The songs and the journeys he has lead us through have became more personal, as if the inhabitants in previous songs (Ma Rainey, Beethoven, Hollis Brown, etc.) had sucked him into their world. Now, he is doomed to suffer the slings and arrows of the farcical reality that many of us believe is fiction but, in fact, resides out our back door. The beginning cut of the album is a prime example of that. In it, the narrator, Dylan, (for hasn’t he, since Blood on the Tracks, cast himself as the star of his cinema?) has just had a fight with his girl and walks through the empty streets. Or is he emotionally numb and, at that point, the world is just dead to him? After all, he is walking with this person he has in his head. More likely, it is the latter. As he progresses along his journey, there are a number of things that remind him of her. Little things that the other couple are doing that remind him of his companion he just had a fight with.

The epic Highlands (16 minutes of dissonant imagery of a man on the cusp of death, maybe? Or maybe boredom?) is a journey on an entirely different plain. The narrator, of course Dylan, journeys in out of reality, a precarious reality. He is drifting and directionless and the inner demons are eating away at him. He keeps reminding us that there is a utopia, but the question is can he get there?

Probably, but, like Hamlet, it may only be after he is dead.

With Time Out of Mind, producer Daniel Lanois’ offbeat arrangements skewed the restlessness that was already boiling in Dylan’s brain. He had become the lead character in the surreal circus that had become his life. The blues musician in Dylan bubbled to the surface. He showed that the blues don’t have to just be “my baby done me wrong and I am sad.”

The journey is what it’s about and with Time Out of Mind, Dylan presented us with another screenplay.